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Five intrepid souls - typical Victorian "men's men" all - imprisoned in Richmond by the North's siege of the city during the American Civil War, band together in a daring escape attempt - the theft of a hot air balloon grounded by a horrific summer storm. The five men - Cyrus Harding, an abolitionist and distinguished captain in Grant's army with Neb, his negro manservant; Gideon Spilett, dauntless war correspondent for the New York Herald; Pencroft, a dashing businessman from the North and former sailor trapped in Richmond by the siege; and his young friend, Herbert Brown - plus Harding's loving dog, Top, are lofted high into the sky by the powerful storm, blown thousand of miles from Richmond and brutally dashed onto the shores of an uncharted island somewhere deep in the southern hemisphere.
The tale unfolds as a straightforward dramatic adventure outlining the trials and tribulations of our five heroes. We are witness to their amazing transformation from prisoners, to castaways, to explorers, to pioneers and, finally, through a combination of intrepid daring, perseverance, cunning, ingenuity, derring-do, and eclectic scientific know-how, to comfortable, established colonists and citizens of their tropical paradise. Quite aptly, they've christened it "Lincoln Island". That Verne allowed himself the luxury of creating characters that were the very model of goodwill and cooperation can be overlooked. That Cyrus Harding, as an engineer, and Herbert Brown, as a young naturalist, had collective instant recall of virtually the world's accumulated scientific knowledge and a great deal of arcana besides was pushing the limits even for a story like this. But, what the heck - The Mysterious Island was intended as a "feel good" adventure, after all. My suggestion to help the reader get past this credibility factor problem is to allow Verne's tale to stand-in as a representative microcosm of the perils facing any group of courageous immigrants colonizing a strange land starting with nothing more than the clothes on their back and their wits. I'm sure you'll set the book down feeling no less than awestruck at the achievements that a successful flourishing colony represents.
As a historical aside, it was with no small amount of horror and disgust that I realized that Spilett's and Pencroft's complete and utter disdain and lack of consideration for the ecology of their island was probably entirely representative of Europe's attitude to these issues in the late 19th century. For example:
" ... Gideon Spilett and Herbert one day saw an animal which resembled a jaguar. Happily the creature did not attack them, or they might not have escaped without a severe wound. As soon as he could get a regular weapon, that is to say, one of the guns which Pencroft begged for, Gideon Spilett resolved to make desperate war against the ferocious beasts, and exterminate them from the island." And "If the island is inhabited by wild beasts, we must think how to fight with and determine how to exterminate them. A time may come when this will be our first duty."
Ironically, despite their crystal clear certainty about their ability to exterminate a species under a planned program of attack, they were completely blind about the potential inability of another species to last forever as a food resource. To wit:
" ... commonly known by the name of American Rabbits. This product of the chase was brought back to Granite House and figured at the evening repast. The tenants of the warren were not at all to be despised, for they were delicious. It was a valuable resource of the colony and it appeared to be inexhaustible."
That said, the book was clearly a child of its times and, as such, the attitudes which we have hopefully left behind us can now be overlooked and accepted as historical artifacts. As an adventure story, it succeeds well and Ray Harryhausen chose well to build an exciting adventure film around it. The Mysterious Island unquestionably deserves a place on your reading list.
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